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Topical Questions

Volume 687: debated on Monday 11 January 2021

Over Christmas the Government announced the 72 recipients of our £830 million future high streets fund competition, enabling the delivery by councils of ambitious plans for regeneration. Councils are once again critical to the covid-19 pandemic, and our focus in the coming weeks will be on ensuring that they play a full and supportive role in the vaccination programme, especially ensuring that the hardest to reach in each of their communities are protected and vaccinated.

The work that communities have done in protecting some of the most vulnerable in society—rough sleepers—has truly been first-class. Last week, I announced the next phase of our strategy, which has been widely praised as one of the most successful of its kind in the world, and which has already committed over £700 million in the past year to supporting rough sleepers and the homeless.

The Prime Minister and I have been clear that central to this Government’s mission is the Conservative party’s promise of home ownership, helping more people to achieve the dream of owning their own home. Our landmark leasehold reforms are the next step in that great tradition. We are putting an end to practices that for far too long have soured the dream of home ownership for millions, and preparing the way for a better system altogether with the active promotion of commonhold.

Notwithstanding what the Secretary of State has just said about our councils being at the frontline of this pandemic, in addition to general grants Bucks council has received £200 million across 25 specific grants as at the end of the last year, but they are subject, I am afraid, to myriad conditions. For example, it has been told that the contain outbreak management fund cannot be used to support local businesses. Surely the Secretary of State can see that it would be better to give our councils the freedom and flexibility to deploy those grants in a way that best meets the needs of their communities, as, after all, they are really facing the danger we all fear?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Local councils have done a fantastic job, but they have limited capacity and in many cases they are close to the limit of that capacity. We are very aware of that. I am urging my colleagues in Cabinet and across Government to prioritise carefully their asks of local government, to ensure that the schemes they bring forward are as simple as possible to reduce the burden on local councils. My long-standing view is that we should be providing funding in almost every case to local councils on an un-ring-fenced basis. That is certainly the way we have proceeded in general throughout the pandemic. We have provided £54 million of un-ring-fenced funding to her local council on top of, as she said, a whole range of schemes to support local businesses and the care sector.

The Secretary of State has taken the extraordinary decision not to challenge the opening of a new deep coal mine in Cumbria. In the year the UK is hosting COP26, we need to show an example to the rest of the world. The application is of national, even global, importance and demands his intervention. Will he now commit to block this disastrous application? If he will not, will he tell the House how he expects anyone to take the Government seriously ever again on tackling climate change?

I cannot comment on an individual application, other than to say that a decision not to call in an application is not a decision on the merits of a particular case. It is a decision on whether it meets the bar to bring in a case and have it heard on a national scale, or whether, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, it is better left to local democratically elected councillors, in this case in Cumbria. It is those councillors who will now make the decision. The national planning policy framework presents a balanced judgment that they will have to make, balancing our national presumption against new coal with any particular benefits that a project might bring to that community in terms of jobs, skills and economic benefit. That is a decision that in this case will be made by the democratically elected members on Cumbria County Council.

In November, the Secretary of State promised me that more details about the replacement of EU structural funds would be revealed in the spending review. They weren’t. The Scottish Government and councils have been left in the dark about the future of the UK shared prosperity fund. Why did the Secretary of State break his promise in November, and where is the so-called respect agenda for devolved nations?

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. We said at the spending review that we are bringing forward not just the UK shared prosperity fund but £220 million of additional funding on top of that to support local communities in all parts of the country, including Scotland. We will shortly be publishing the prospectus. I hope he will now take this occasion to welcome the fact that not only will Scottish residents and businesses receive as much funding as they would have received had we stayed in the European Union, but £220 million more than that. We are more than meeting our commitment to his electors in Scotland.

I am glad the Secretary of State has touched on that, because Scotland’s share of the measly £220 million of transition funding to replace structural funds will be £18 million. If Scotland was an independent member of the European Union, it could expect to receive over £121 million at the very least. How can he claim that the shared prosperity fund is replacing lost EU funds when Scotland is receiving less than a sixth of what it would if it had stayed in the European Union?

The hon. Gentleman needs to do his sums again, if he is fully abreast of what is happening. The EU structural funds will continue for the coming year at the level they would have been at had we remained a member. The Chancellor has chosen, in addition to that funding, to add £220 million more. The hon. Gentleman does not know the proportion of that going to Scotland, because we will publish that in the prospectus. The figure he quotes is the one set by the European Union, so his objection is to the way in which the European Union chooses to divide up its structural funds to support local communities, not to the way that this Government can. Fortunately, as a result of leaving the European Union we can make our own decisions in the weeks and months ahead.

The £6.2 million future high streets fund is a welcome boost for Ashfield. Along with the towns fund of up to a third of £50 million for our area, this investment shows a real commitment to level up in red wall seats like mine. However, the forgotten town of Eastwood in my constituency has been left behind for years under successive Labour MPs and Labour councils. Will my right hon. Friend therefore please meet me to discuss once again how Eastwood can be included in the next round of funding? (910716)

My hon. Friend has already secured, as he says, the town deal for Ashfield, and the good news over the Christmas period is that it will also benefit from the high streets fund. We have been supporting Eastwood under this Government. The redevelopment of Mushroom Farm has received £160,000 for new commercial space for small and medium-sized enterprises and entrepreneurs in his constituency, but I would be very happy to meet him and see what more we might be able to do, so that all the investment that we have brought to Ashfield is also spread to Eastwood.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that his new Everyone In policy announced last week includes people with no recourse to public funds, without exceptions or caveats? And will he listen to calls from the Local Government Association and others for no recourse to public funds conditions to be suspended so that everyone who is vulnerable can access help? (910715)

We have been very clear that the further work that we are doing now, building on the hugely successful Everyone In scheme, will be available to all individuals. Councils need to apply the law and that means making an individual assessment, but the unique circumstances of winter and the pandemic will mean that councils will use that to support more people off the streets and, importantly, to view this as a moment not just to support them now, but to get them GP-registered so that, in due course, they can be vaccinated, so we lead the world in supporting this vulnerable group and ensuring that they are fully vaccinated.

Not too long ago, the Secretary of State met me on Dinnington High Street to discuss help for smaller towns, and especially help for Dinnington. The towns fund, which is an excellent initiative that will help to rejuvenate many town centres, does not benefit smaller towns such as those in Rother Valley. What plans does he have to introduce a similar scheme that will benefit the likes of Dinnington, Maltby, Aston and Thurcroft, so that our towns in Rother Valley can also be revived? (910717)

I do remember that visit to Dinnington when my hon. Friend was a candidate, and I was delighted that he was later elected. He has assiduously made the point that we need to think about smaller towns and larger villages in the preparation of our plans, whether that is the levelling-up fund or the UK shared prosperity fund. I appreciate that in places such as south Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, there are small communities, perhaps ex-steel and ex-coalfield communities, where the need is great and where we need to ensure that investment arrives. That will very much be in our minds as we prepare the prospectus for the levelling-up fund.

More than three years after Grenfell, thousands of worried tenants go to sleep every night in buildings clad with flammable material. Will the Minister confirm when he expects all flammable cladding will be removed from residential properties? (910720)

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. I know that she campaigns hard for her constituents on this issue. On 21 January—in a little under two weeks’ time—we will be able to release the latest figures on the remediation of aluminium composite material cladding. We believe that, by that time, we should show that around 95% of the buildings identified at the start of last year—having such safety defects—will have had their work either completed or it will be under way. We are absolutely committed to resolving this issue for leaseholders. That is why we are accelerating the work to find a package that will ensure that they are not left disadvantaged.

Despite the best efforts of local authority inclusion officers, there continues to be a crisis in the education of Traveller children, with around a third of Traveller children in my area not getting a proper education. The planning system has to bear some responsibility for that. As the Department reviews this policy, will it look at a more integrated approach where children generally go to school on a regular basis and get a better education? Will that be factored in to future planning policy as the Department reviews this area? (910718)

My hon. Friend is one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful Members of the House on this subject, which he and I have discussed many times. Fewer than one in five children from a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller background meets the expected standard for English and maths at GCSE. I am firmly committed to delivering a cross-Government strategy to improve life chances in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and, as my hon. Friend says, to encourage greater integration, particularly in education. In the depths of the pandemic, my Department has invested £400,000 in education and training programmes for GRT children, so that they can receive extra tuition and catch up on lost learning.

In November, the Public Accounts Committee published a damning report on the towns fund, stating that the selection process was not impartial and was almost certainly subject to political interference from Ministers. Wyre Council’s strong bid for the future high streets funding for Fleetwood, which I supported, was rejected last month. Was that selection process, which saw Fleetwood’s town centre miss out, also not impartial? (910729)

The hon. Lady misrepresents even what the Public Accounts Committee had to say about the towns fund; I urge her to re-read what it said and not to be so liberal with her language. I can assure her that the high streets fund used a 100% competitive process, and Ministers had no say in choosing the places selected.

If fault lies anywhere, I am afraid it lies with the hon. Lady’s local council, because despite our giving it hundreds of thousands of pounds to produce plans, and despite the no doubt great need in the community, it failed to put forward proposals that met the Treasury’s basic benefit-cost ratio value-for-money standard. That is a great pity. The people of her local community have missed out, but if the blame lies anywhere, it lies with her local council.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.